Space Hulk MS-DOS (reviewed), Amiga, and PC-98 Developed by Electronic Arts Released in 1993
While nowadays we associate Electronic Arts with an endless slew of controversies, it’s weird to recall the era where they were a pretty solid company by most accounts. Space Hulk from 1993 is the first game we are going to review from old EA and it really highlights the ambition and creativity the company was known for before the turn of the millennium. While in terms of actual gameplay the game doesn’t hold up anymore, it’s still a fantastic relic from the old days.
Enter the hulk
I explained the concept of space hulks in my review of Space Crusade, but for those just joining us: in the 40K universe ships travel long distances by taking shortcuts through The Warp, a perilous realm that is the home of foul demons. Sometimes ships disappear while travelling and are barfed out by The Warp centuries later, distorted beyond recognition and infested with lots of nasties.
In this game you play as the Dark Angels, a proud chapter of the Space Marines of the Imperium of Mankind, tasked with raiding these ships and completing specific objectives. While Space Crusade offered a variety of different aliens to blast, in Space Hulk there are only Genestealers, four-armed Tyranids with claws that can rip through power armor like butter. Since regular marines won’t do, the Dark Angels send in terminators, the power-houses of the chapter.
Once again there isn’t much in the way of a campaign as you usually just undertake standard mission that provide randomized introductions from an officer. While this is better than reading a wall of text, it’s still a long way from telling the kind of epic tale set in the 40K universe that would make the game really stand out. There are the Deathwing mission, which deviate from the standard setup of the game to provide some more oddball missions, but these too don’t have much of an ongoing narrative to them.
Story score: 8/10
Blast the alien scum!
Space Hulk is kind of an odd duck and can be played in two different modes that turn it into radically different genres. With that in mind, the game is either a first-person shooter or a semi turn-based strategy game.
You control one or two squads (depending on the mission) of Dark Angel terminators inside of the space hulk. You have to complete a tactical objective, which can mean flaming a specific sector, killing a set amount of Genestealers, getting to a specific point, or grabbing an objective. The problem lies in the fact that neither of the two modes is useful for completing these tasks.
In the first-person mode you have a large screen that shows you the vision of your terminator. By clicking on the edges or using the arrow keys you can move your marine forward, backwards, or turn them left and right on the spot. By clicking anywhere else within this screen you fire your weapon. Above the big screen are four smaller ones that show you what all the other terminators are seeing, so you can keep track of the rest of the battlefield. Marines you are not actively controlling will fire on their own at the enemies that cross their line-of-sight and you can switch between them by right-clicking on any of the other monitors.
Except this makes the game ponderous to play. Marines move so slowly and respond sluggishly to your command and using this mode means you are moving all of them one-by-one. By the time you get the second marine in position to cover the first, that first guy already has Genestealers snacking on his spine. The alternative is a map mode where you put in commands for all terminators to follow, which makes the action a lot more manageable and keeps the pace up, but the overhead map is utterly useless. It shows such a small portion of the map that you keep having to scroll around and you have no idea what any individual marine is doing. Oftentimes I found they weren’t turned in the right direction or were just standing around without firing at enemies at all.
If you keep switching between these modes it becomes somewhat do-able, but Space Hulk also suffers from bothersome AI. Genestealers can set up traps and they are durable enough take a few seconds of machine gun fire, so if you only have 3 grid-spaces between a Genestealer and you, that terminator is pretty much done for. They are also fond of camping around corners, which you can see on the minimap, and since you can’t squeeze terminators past each other in the tight single-space corridors of the hulks there is no way to flush these cheap bastards out with your flamers.
Another common annoyance was jamming, which happens at complete random and leaves your marine unable to fire. Again, since you can’t shoot past each other and the terminators are too bulky to swap places on the fly, if you get Genestealers coming and a weapon jams that terminator is lost. And when one Genestealer pushes past your defensive line, neither the FPS mode or planning mode are capable of quickly dispatching it before it eats 3 more guys. Just like in Space Crusade, random chance dictates exactly how well any raid is going to go.
Space Hulk needed to be more responsive and the Genestealers squishier and more violent. If the overhead map also provided better indicators for soldiers’ whose weapons are jammed, made it easier to turn units around, and was just in general zoomed out more that would also be great. As it stands, Space Hulk just doesn’t feel that fair or fun to play, but I hear it’s sequel solved that really well.
Gameplay score: 3/10
Big, bulky bastards
Wow, 3 years of progress really changed the quality of DOS games. If you compare the pretty simplistic-looking Space Crusade to this, then you’d almost think the former is lagging two generations behind. Space Hulk looks fantastic, but this may or may not be accompanied by the fact that it runs like a handicapped snail.
You move your gigantic super soldiers through the narrow passages while you hear the grunts and growls of monsters in the distance, sometimes accompanied by the screams of dying men still unfortunate enough to be alive in the vessel. The walls give me sort of a Doom vibe what with the simple decorations to vary up the many halls, but the real stars of the show are the Genestealers themselves. H.R. Giger would have certainly given these monsters a passing grade and it can make for tense moments when you got one of these catching you by surprise.
The sound was nice. I use the past tense here because my copy kept crashing if I tried to use a Soundblaster 16 to make the game sound as crisp as possible, so I had revert it all back to MIDI sound. Even that gets the atmosphere across, but MIDI is particularly unkind to dialogue.
Presentation score: 8/10
So far we have seen two games adapting the Space Hulk board games and both were deeply flawed despite having some really strong selling points. This game has strong visuals, amazing sound, and the iconic Genestealers on its side, but just suffers when making all of that playable. A better tutorial and tighter controls would have been nice, which may be present in the sequel we got 2 years later. Guess we´ll find out in the next review.